Scripture: Luke 7:36-8:3
A couple years ago, a comedian posted a satirical account of shopping at Whole Foods that made the rounds on the internet. Like most comedians’ work, it is a bit off-color at times but hilarious, especially if you’ve had the pleasure of the Whole Foods “experience.” Here’s an excerpt:
Whole Foods’ clientele are all about mindfulness and compassion... until they get to the parking lot. Then it’s war. As I pull up this morning, I see a pregnant lady on the crosswalk holding a baby and groceries. This driver swerves around her and honks. As he speeds off I catch his bumper sticker, which says ‘NAMASTE’. Poor lady didn’t even hear him approaching because he was driving a Prius. He crept up on her like a panther.
As the great, sliding glass doors part I am immediately smacked in the face by a wall of cool, moist air that smells of strawberries and orchids. I leave behind the concrete jungle and enter a cornucopia of organic bliss: the land of hemp milk and honey.
I pass by the great wall of kombucha and the gluten-free section filled with crackers and bread made from various wheat-substitutes such as cardboard and sawdust, and ask the nearest Whole Foods clerk for help. He’s wearing a visor inside and as if that weren’t annoying enough, it has one word on it in all caps. Yup, NAMASTE. I ask him where I can find whole wheat bread. He chuckles at me “Oh, we keep the poison in aisle 7.”
I grab a couple of loaves of poison, and head to checkout. I suddenly realize that I’m dying to get out of this store. Maybe it’s the lonely feeling of being a carnivore in a sea of vegans, or the newfound knowledge that some people’s dogs eat better than I do, but mostly I think it’s the fact that Yanni has been playing literally this entire time. Like sensory deprivation, listening to Yanni seems harmless at first, enjoyable even. But two hours in, you’ll chew your own ear off to make it stop.
A thousand minutes later, I get to the cashier. “Have you brought your reusable bags?” No, they are at home with their 2 dozen once-used friends. She rings up my meat, alcohol, gluten and a wrapper from the chocolate bar I ate in line for $313. I resist the urge to unwrap and swallow whole another $6 truffle in protest. Barely. Instead, I reach for my wallet, flash her a quiet smile and say, “Namaste.”
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but middle/upper class white Americans are really attached to watered down versions of South Asian spirituality such as yoga and the traditional greeting, “namaste.” Sadly, our versions of these things often translate very little of the depth and beauty of the original practices, and little knowledge of the people with whom the practices originated. If you think about it, it is rather profound to greet someone by saying “namaste.” Namaste means, “I see you. I recognize the human and the divine in you. I see you.” What a beautiful way to acknowledge that all people are created in the image of God! You might not get that same sense of the meaning of Namaste from the bumper stickers on cars in the Whole Foods parking lot. Even when we remind ourselves in our yoga classes and with our bumper stickers, we have a difficult time seeing people through the eyes of God: as bearers of God’s image, as vessels of God’s Spirit, as the presence of Christ among us, as containing the divine spark that God has placed in all of us.
But we don’t have to dabble in South Asian spirituality to learn how to see people for what they truly are. Our own tradition teaches us that. C.S. Lewis once wrote: “There are no ordinary people…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself (the bread and wine at Communion), your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” Lewis said this in reference to Jesus’ promise to be present to us as the least of these whether we know it or not. The gospels are full of stories about Jesus’ special knack for looking past people’s pretentions, looking past divisive labels and cultural stigmas to invite all people into God’s revolution unfolding on earth. Jesus spent his ministry telling people society deemed worthless, or unclean, or “sinners” that they were blessed and forgiven by God and would be greatest in the kingdom. Along with preaching this good news for the poor, Jesus also repeatedly called the rich and the powerful, the religious and political insiders of his day, to see those they had ignored and cast off as precious children of God.
Our story for today from the gospel of Luke is a prime example of this. Jesus has been invited to a dinner party. This is not, however, the kind of dinner party that has earned him a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard among the well-to-do. The host of this evening’s affair is not a “tax collector or sinner,” those with whom Jesus usually dines, but someone from the opposite end of the societal spectrum. Tonight’s party is being thrown by Simon the Pharisee. Simon’s dinner would have been an invite-only social event with the uninvited peering in from outside to catch a glimpse of the important folks eating their fancy food, drinking their expensive wine, and having their important discussions about philosophy, religion, politics, and business. It’s difficult to tell from the passage what Simon’s motivations for inviting Jesus may have been. Jesus’ ministry to the poor and the outcast had been provoking the Pharisees, and they were already fed up with him. He was subverting their authority at every turn. He was walking around calling himself the Son of Man, associating with all the wrong people, and flouting the Sabbath laws in favor of caring for these very same people. The Pharisees were astonished by his audacity and had already begun building a case against him. So maybe Simon’s motivations were sinister. Maybe he was hoping to publicly shame Jesus and catch him in the act of breaking the law or doing something inappropriate or unacceptable by the cultural and religious standards of the day. But it’s also possible Simon was simply curious about this new Rabbi in town. As a sophisticated and educated man, perhaps he wanted to hear Jesus out. Give him a chance to convince him and the other Pharisees with a good-natured theological debate.
Now if you know Jesus, you know this little shindig is probably not going to end well for Simon but Jesus graciously attends, waiting to see if Simon’s true motivations will be revealed. Jesus enters the house and takes his place at the table, but at some point in the evening’s well-orchestrated program, a shocking interruption occurs. A woman, who we are told is a well-known “sinner” in town, enters the house, comes behind Jesus, and in a strange and startling act, she anoints his feet with perfume, weeping with abandon and wiping his feet with her hair. The gospel Jesus was preaching had been such good news to her that she could not contain herself. She was compelled to seek him out—disregarding the cultural decorum of the evening—in order to express her repentance and her heartfelt gratitude for the message of forgiveness and freedom he brought from God.
Simon is not impressed. He says to himself, “well I have my answer. If this man were truly sent by God, he would know that this woman is unclean and that he should not allow her to touch him.” Instead of rebuking the woman, however, Jesus perceives Simon’s thoughts and immediately addresses him from across the table: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Possibly intrigued, possibly embarrassed, Simon says “Teacher, speak.” Jesus proceeds to tell him a parable of two men who owed debts to a creditor. One man’s debt was large, another’s modest. “When the creditor forgives both debts, which man will love him more?” Jesus asks Simon. One can almost hear Jesus’ polite, yet condescending tone. Simon has no choice but to answer the question the way Jesus has set it up to be answered, entrapping himself in the message of the parable. Simon’s non-committal answer, “I suppose the one with the greater debt,” comes across as flippant given that the answer to Jesus’ question is obvious. “You have judged rightly,” Jesus says.
At this point, Jesus could have stopped. Only Simon knows that Jesus is pointing out the error of his inner thoughts with the parable. But Jesus pushes it a step further. He not only corrects Simon privately, he lets everyone in on the secret and turns the tables on Simon, rebuking him in front of everyone and affirming the woman publicly. By this point, the entire room is quietly listening to Jesus. “Simon do you see this woman?” he asks. Before waiting for a reply he proceeds to contrast Simon’s lack of hospitality with the woman’s extravagant hospitality. “When I entered,” he says, “you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with the water of her tears. You gave me no kiss, but she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, and because of that, she has shown great love. But the one who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then Jesus turns to the woman and says, “your sins are forgiven.” Whispering and muttering breaks out at the table. Each turns to his neighbor and wonders, “Who is this that he even forgives sins?” But Jesus ignores them, saying to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
What a powerful story! You can imagine how angry and embarrassed Simon must have been. But think of how incredible, how vindicated, how loved and accepted the woman must have felt. Jesus didn’t just excuse her behavior in front of his important host and his friends; he went above and beyond and affirmed her as faithful. It’s really a beautiful and moving account of Jesus’ compassion for those who long for reconciliation with God. I have to wonder, however, if we have forgotten the message of this story. When Jesus says to Simon, “The one who is forgiven little, loves little,” he isn’t saying Simon is less of a sinner than the woman. He just finished contrasting Simon’s inhospitable behavior with the woman’s. No, what Jesus is pointing out to Simon, is that Simon thinks he has only been forgiven a little, and therefore, he does not live a life of gratitude and love in response to God’s forgiveness. Throughout his parables and teachings Jesus emphasizes this: those who know they need God are the ones who get it. In fact, the word translated as “sinner” is the same word Simon Peter calls himself earlier in the book of Luke. Perhaps, as is suggested by Jesus’ radical acceptance of “sinners,” “sinner” does not describe some horrifying moral failing, but outsider status—those people assumed to be beyond God’s mercy. These are the people Jesus always gravitates towards, while reserving harsh words for those who assume they should be included no matter their characteristics or faults.
One of the apostle Paul’s most quoted phrases says, “There is no distinction for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We are no longer to divide ourselves into sinner and “pretty good” person. There is no distinction. All have sinned! What God is interested in is that we acknowledge that truth. “All the fitness he requireth is to know your need of him” as the hymn we sang earlier puts it. Jesus is clear; confession and repentance are necessary for the life of faith. Confession returns us to right relationship with God whether we think we need it or not! It reminds us not only that we often try and fail to live up to Christ’s example, but also that God’s mercy overcomes our failures. This freedom to live in God’s grace is what allows us to be joyful in the face of the world’s challenges, to forgive our neighbors and our enemies when they wrong us, and to see all people as God sees them: sinners in need of mercy, just like us. On the other hand, if we resist confession we begin believing in our own righteousness, in our own power to save ourselves. This leads us to begin looking down upon other people as unrighteous and to believe we can coercively and even violently enforce our view of what is right. We become Simon, looking down on the woman for her sins, pointing to the speck in her eye while ignoring the plank in our own.
My favorite moment in this story is when Jesus pivots from his parable to directly contrasting Simon’s hospitality and the woman’s. “Simon, do you see this woman?” he says. What a ridiculous question! The woman just walked up to the table, poured oil on Jesus’s feet, cried all over him, and wiped him with her hair. Of course he sees her! But I think there’s more to Jesus’ question than meets the eye. Jesus is asking Simon if he really sees her, or if he has simply written her off as unclean, as undesirable, as different and therefore not worth his attention and his compassion. A couple weeks ago, when she announced the Justice Department’s lawsuit against the state of North Carolina for the passage of HB2, Loretta Lynch gave a heartfelt plea for the United States to begin seeking justice for the transgender community. At one point in the speech, she said these words:
Let me speak now to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my state of North Carolina. You’ve been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm – but that just is not the case. Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society – all it does is harm innocent Americans.
Instead of turning away from our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, let us instead learn from our history and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past. Let us reflect on the obvious but often neglected lesson that state-sanctioned discrimination never looks good in hindsight. It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference. We have moved beyond those dark days, but not without pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward. Let us write a different story this time. Let us not act out of fear and misunderstanding, but out of the values of inclusion, diversity and regard for all that make our country great.
Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself. Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy – but we’ll get there together.
These are moving words and will probably be recorded in history books for future generations to study. However, as soon as I heard it, my first thought was: why is it that the United States government, a secular government, is the one saying most vigorously to the transgender community “we see you. We stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you?” We in the church are the ones with the example of Christ who stood up to people with power and privilege on behalf of the marginalized and downtrodden around him! And yet, too many of us in the church are silent and far too many have cast their lot with those who would keep various groups of God’s beloved children on the outside looking in! Loretta Lynch is speaking good news to the trans* community. All over social media I watched my LGBTQ friends discuss Lynch’s speech and express gratitude that their government was taking action to defend them from discrimination. Where is our good news for them? If our gospel isn’t good news for trans* people, it isn’t the gospel of Jesus. If it isn’t good news for those our culture has deemed “undesirable,” it isn’t the gospel of God’s kingdom. If it isn’t good news for the gay and Latino communities in Orlando where 49 people where shot and killed in a nightclub just this morning, it isn’t the gospel of Jesus! But we do have a gospel that is good news for all people! Instead of silence and exclusion, we have good news to spread! And I would venture a guess that if we can widen our imaginations a little closer to God’s vision for our world, we might be sitting on even better news than what our government is sharing with the trans* community. There is full inclusion and peace and abundant life NOW in God’s kingdom, not in some distant future where we have to wait for our politicians to get their act together. Now. That’s what the church should be offering. Good news for all people, not just for those already on the inside. And it may even take embarrassing and angering some Simons in the process as Jesus did, but that is God’s way. God is in the business of widening the circle. Healing and reconciliation are offered for those who can accept that God’s radical grace is for everyone.
The very end of our passage says that Jesus left Simon’s dinner party and continued spreading the good news of the kingdom through the cities and villages. And who was it that received his message and supported him in his mission? The twelve—a group of ragtag poor people, insurrectionists, and other undesirables—and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities. Misfit disciples. Outcasts like the woman at the dinner party. People who were able to receive the message of the kingdom because they knew they needed it. Jesus has no interest in the categories and boundaries we establish to separate people into righteous and “sinner”—what he cares about is people God can use for the kingdom, true disciples who know their need of God and live in a way that reflects their gratitude. The best gift a church could hope for is not pews filled with “good and decent people” but pews filled with weeping sinners, full of God’s love because of the judgment they deserved, but did not receive. We need a church full of people who don’t balk at confessing their sins, but take the practice of confession seriously so that they can repent and be revived by God’s grace. We need a church full of people who look past labels and categories and truly see others, see them as bearers of the image of God, as Christ in disguise, as holy. If we can figure out how to more fully become that church, then God will use us to spread a gospel to the world that is truly good news to people who are desperate for God’s goodness.